Is mass incarceration the new caste system?

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 4/18/2012, 7:30 a.m.
After the dismantling of segregation nearly...

How has this racial caste system adapted to the colorblind or post-racial age, we supposedly live in today?

This system is colorblind on the surface. Our drug laws on the surface say nothing about race. Unlike the images of the old Jim Crow — the images of overt, latent bigotry and racism — this system has a colorblind veneer that is very seductive.

But the reality is that these colorblind laws, particularly our drug laws, are enforced in a grossly discriminatory manner. Even though studies have shown consistently now, for decades, that contrary to popular belief, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, people of color have been arrested and incarcerated at grossly disproportionate rates. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been one race — African American.

The drug war has defined as its enemy, folks primarily who live in impoverished, racially segregated, ghettoized communities. It is the people who live in those communities, and their children, who are targeted by the police for routine stops and frisks … [They] are subjected to tactics that would be met with outrage in middle-class white neighborhoods, or on college campuses, even though drugs are equally likely, or more likely, to be found there.

Does your argument apply to the way the United States has conducted the war on terror?

Unfortunately, many of the failed tactics that have been used in the war on drugs have been adapted in the war on terror. One of the important things for people to keep in mind is that you can’t declare a war on a thing, like drugs or terrorism. You declare war on people. In the drug war, the people who became the enemy were poor folks of color, living in ghettoized communities.

In the war on terrorism, a group of people we imagine to be the terrorists have been the targets of investigation and subjected to practices that many believe violate many of our basic constitutional principles and standards.

How does the Trayvon Martin case fit into this?

Even during the Jim Crow era, crimes committed against black people, whether by whites or by other black people, were deemed trivial. It was often very difficult to get any action to be taken on behalf of the victim in those kinds of cases, and that remains true to a large extent today. When this unarmed teenager was killed, law enforcement accepted, relatively uncritically, George Zimmerman’s explanation. They ran drug tests and a criminal background check on the victim, but did no such thing for the man who pulled the trigger.

What I’m concerned about, as all of the politics and the drama surrounding Trayvon Martin’s case plays out, is that we have demonized Zimmerman, rather than acknowledge that Zimmerman’s mindset, far from being unusual or aberrational, is absolutely normal and institutionalized within law enforcement itself.

If Zimmerman had had a badge with his gun, we wouldn’t even know Trayvon Martin’s name today. What Zimmerman did — view a young black teenager as a problem to be dealt with, confronted and controlled for no reason other than his race — is how police treat young black men every day in this country.